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United States v. Ruiz-Celaya

United States District Court, D. Arizona

September 30, 2016

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Maria Magdalena Ruiz-Celaya, Defendant.


          Neil V. Wake Senior United States District Judge.

         Defendant Maria Magdalena Ruiz-Celaya has filed a Motion for Reconsideration and Offer of Proof urging the Court to allow her to present a duress defense at trial. (Docs. 105 and 113.) The Court now considers this motion, the government's response (Doc. 114), and Ruiz-Celaya's reply (Doc. 118).


         The present motion stems from a criminal indictment charging Ruiz-Celaya with conspiring to export a firearm and possession of a firearm while present in the United States under a non-immigrant visa. (Doc. 1; Doc. 114 at 2.) The relevant events began on February 13, 2015, when Ruiz-Celaya's husband was arrested by U.S. authorities for various weapons violations. (Doc. 105 at 4.) Ruiz-Celaya maintains that at the time of her husband's arrest, her husband worked for a Mexican cartel and was tasked with obtaining a gun and transferring it to members of the cartel. (Doc. 105 at 4.) Ruiz- Celaya further maintains that she herself had nothing to do with any of her husband's weapons trafficking prior to that point. (Id.; Doc. 113, ¶ 3.)

         By Ruiz-Celaya's account, the day of her husband's arrest she was contacted by Ruben Parada-Ortega, a member of her husband's cartel.[1] (Doc. 105 at 4; Doc. 114 at 1.) Parada-Ortega and his associates initially did not have her contact information; to track her down they first showed up to her sister's home in Mexico and warned her sister that “things would get very ugly for her family” if they could not get in touch with Ruiz-Celaya. (Doc. 105 at 5; Doc. 113, ¶ 5.) This was apparently fruitful for them, because Parada-Ortega later called Ruiz-Celaya “demanding she produce either [a replacement] weapon or $20, 000.” (Doc. 105 at 4.) Ruiz-Celaya maintains she did not have $20, 000. (Doc. 113, ¶ 3.) By her account, Ruiz-Celaya received threats of “harm to [herself], her children and/or her family in Mexico if she did not comply.”[2] (Doc. 105 at 6.) In particular, Parada-Ortega brought up his visit to her family and his conversation with her sister “to highlight the people he would harm.” (Doc. 105 at 5.) Ruiz-Celaya claims that the cartel generally was “known for violence and could be expected to carry out their threats.” (Doc. 105 at 7.)

         On top of all this, Parada-Ortega told Ruiz-Celaya she had a limited amount of time to come up with a replacement weapon, though Ruiz-Celaya's account leaves it unclear how much time she actually believed she had. At one point in her proffer, Ruiz-Celaya asserts she “was given an hour to find” a replacement weapon. (Doc. 113, ¶ 4; Doc. 105 at 4-5.) However, as the government points out (and Ruiz-Celaya does not dispute), it was fully three days after her husband's arrest that she finally purchased a .50 caliber rifle from a local gun seller, the transaction underlying her present charges.[3](Doc. 114 at 2.) In any case there is no dispute that Ruiz-Celaya, with the help of her co-defendants, made the weapon purchase on February 16, 2015. (Doc. 114 at 1-2.) Ruiz-Celaya does not offer many details about what took place in the interim, but she does contend that she was being closely monitored by Parada-Ortega, who, for at least some of the time, “kept calling her so that she could update him of what was happening.”[4] (Doc. 105 at 5.) Moreover, she maintains that because her family lived in Mexico, and because she did not know the identity of Parada-Ortega at the time, she believed that contacting authorities “would result in harm to her or her family.” (Doc. 105 at 8.)

         After buying the weapon, Ruiz-Celaya received a call from a male who did not identify himself to her but was later identified by authorities as Miguel Angel Rodelo-Cota. (Doc. 114 at 2.) Rodelo-Cota, apparently also involved with the same cartel, gave Ruiz-Celaya specific instructions for delivering the weapon to him, which she did. (Doc. 105 at 9; Doc. 114 at 2.) In its motion to preclude, the government maintains that Ruiz-Celaya herself “stated that Rodelo-Cota had provided [Ruiz-Celaya] the money to purchase the rifle.” (Doc. 114 at 2.) Ruiz-Celaya, however, contends in no uncertain terms “that she did not receive any money for buying the gun, ” and insists “[h]er only motive for committing this crime was an immediate fear of death or serious injury to herself or family.”[5] (Doc. 105 at 9.)

         On at least two occasions over the next six days, Ruiz-Celaya spoke with federal agents about the events that took place. Ruiz-Celaya contends that “Agent Reports dated February 16 and February 22, 2015, show that Mrs. Celaya-Ruiz [sic] immediately assisted in the investigation and told agents about what had happened.” (Doc. 105 at 8.) Ruiz-Celaya does not mention who initiated either of these encounters. The government, however, contends that agents conducted a non-custodial interview with her on February 20, 2015, in which she allegedly stated that Rodelo-Cota gave her money to make the gun purchase. (Doc. 114 at 2.) The government also notes that Ruiz-Celaya took part in another interview with law enforcement agents on February 22, 2015, which the government points out is the basis for Ruiz-Celaya's duress defense. (Id.)

         In her initial proffer of a duress defense, Ruiz-Celaya included as an exhibit a copy of an ICE Report of Investigation dated March 4, 2015, which notes two interviews with her conducted by ICE agents, one on February 20, 2015, and one on February 22, 2015. (Doc. 85-1.) The report memorializes scant details of the February 20 interview in two short paragraphs, noting only that Ruiz-Celaya told agents she had been instructed by someone identifying himself as “R” to buy the .50 caliber rifle. (Id. at 3.) The report reveals she contacted authorities the next day, February 21, saying she was scared that this unknown individual kept contacting her. (Id.) The report makes no mention of Rodelo-Cota or whether Ruiz-Celaya was given any money to buy the gun. The report provides greater detail for the February 22 interview, including a lengthy written conversation between Ruiz-Celaya and “R” via WhatsApp. (Id. at 3-6.) Ruiz-Celaya told the agents she did not feel personally threatened by him, but that she was worried he would harm her family in Mexico since he knew where they lived. (Id. at 3.) The report states that after the interview, agents suggested Ruiz-Celaya move to a different location for a few days, but that Ruiz-Celaya insisted on remaining at her house. (Id. at 6.)


         Duress is a common-law defense “that allows a jury to find that the defendant's conduct is excused, even though the government has carried its burden of proof” at trial. United States v. Chi Tong Kuok, 671 F.3d 931, 947 (9th Cir. 2012). To be able to raise duress as a defense at trial at all, the defendant must first make a prima facie showing of duress in a pre-trial offer of proof. United States v. Vasquez-Landaver, 527 F.3d 798, 802 (9th Cir. 2008). This is to ensure the defense is relevant and does not merely confuse the jury; “the constitutional right to testify . . . does not authorize a defendant to present irrelevant testimony.” United States v. Moreno, 102 F.3d 994, 999 (9th Cir. 1996).

         Duress requires a showing of three elements: “(1) an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury, (2) a well-grounded fear that the threat will be carried out, and (3) lack of a reasonable opportunity to escape the threatened harm.” Vasquez-Landaver, 527 F.3d at 802 (quoting Moreno, 102 F.3d at 997). The government here only disputes elements (1) and (3). (Doc. 114 at 4.)

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. ...

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